I’ve written a lot about my experiences learning French, and there are days where I wanted to rip my hair out with some of the aspects.
I knew, from the get-go, that learning a new language is hard as an adult. That much is clear, as is the fact that the process of learning anything is often quite different for an adult learner. And I’ve blogged about my initial diagnostic test that said I would be fine for reading and writing but struggle with oral. I just didn’t have the ear for languages, it was clearly indicated on my test results.
And then I started at Asticou, at a very difficult time in my life emotionally, and with a horrible teacher. Where I struggled. A lot. I felt like the stupidest person on the planet, although it is hard to tell if that was because of the school, my emotional state, the teacher, or just the process of learning as an adult where I went from being competent at my job and getting praise to spending all day, every day, hearing nothing but corrections for my errors. Others were excited, I was demoralized. After 8 months, I was struggling with grief-induced depression, and work beckoned just in time to prevent a complete meltdown. I’ve also blogged about finally getting my B, and feeling relieved. Because I didn’t know if I could even pass the B level test at that point.
Yet seven years later, I found out that I actually had really good retention, was easily a B and that the previous test was hard because I was tested for C! In fact, I was ready to formally prepare for a C. How is that I didn’t know that coming out of Asticou? How could I have been so wrong about my “current ability” or even my “potential capacity”? How could the system have led me, or let me descend, so far into doubt?
I don’t know. But I got my C finally, doing just about everything against the rules for the actual test except one big thing — I managed my stress during the exam so that I only gave short answers to the questions asked. Fast forward another 10 years, and I did some refresher training. Then jump another two years to some internal placement testing, paving the way for some refresher training this past March. Which went horribly, in many ways.
Quatre semaines de réchauffement
I went to one of the popular schools downtown for four weeks of a refresher, all that there was room for in the divisional calendar before other needs would pull me back. I figured I needed between 3 and 5 weeks, so the 4-week attempt was a good compromise. I needed to renew my written level B and my oral level C, but I wasn’t that worried about the written. I’d had it before twice, once with little preparation, but I tried really hard to bump it up to a C. Not quite hard enough, still got a B. I’m very consistent on that one. Not so consistent on the oral practice, hence the training.
Week 1 was a bit tough after not using my french much in the last 20 years, honestly. Particularly in the last 9 years working on corporate planning work, all of which happens in English except for occasional bilingual meetings. But I survived the week, even if one of my teachers did not.
I suspect she was quite good, actually, very knowledgeable, and had a very firm view of what was necessary to prepare for the test. Except I don’t respond well to “my way or the highway” approaches, and I jettisoned her from my team after a week. If I was there for 12 weeks, or even 8, I might have struggled through to find our groove, but I only had 3 more weeks to go and I couldn’t waste time finding a good way to work with her. The replacement was good, and I passed the next three weeks okay. I didn’t feel as strong as I had previously when I got my C, but I was also really worried about the format of the new test. The new test has a much greater emphasis on comprehension than previous models, and I was worried that I could and would miss some nuances. My speaking is fine, as I don’t have the three most common challenges — flow, willingness to elaborate, or vocabulary. I’m usually okay for structures and adequate for pronunciation (I’ll always sound like an anglo speaker, but that’s not pertinent to the test). But my comprehension is my weakest area, particularly if it is an informal conversation or off-work topics or, gasp, fast talkers. And with a bunch of past practice and preparation, recordings were killing me.
I had one near-hysterical experience with one tutor. I listened to a recording in which a woman was leaving for vacation, she was responsible for “complaints” and couldn’t find anyone to look after it while she was gone. Her boss was “volunteering”, sort of willing to do it. It made little sense for protocol, but well, the vocabulary was fine. Except that wasn’t what it was about. She didn’t have plaintes (complaints) that needed managing, she had plantes. Like plants. I didn’t even know the word plante existed in french. But I knew plaintes for complaints. My tutor was much amused; 2 years later, I can see the humour, even if I don’t feel it.
And that continued with a lot of the sample recordings. I would listen, it would go well, and then there would be one where I missed a nuance or an entire substructure, and I would be completely lost. Hard to build up momentum. I was terrified that with the new structure of listening to recordings, I would be dead in the water. So I wanted to practice that a lot.
Ideally, I would have done my training and did my test immediately afterwards. Nope. My training ended the third week of March, and my test was set for early May and then bumped to July! The current scheduling approach for french exams is HORRIBLE, and lots of people are really stressed just because of the process, not knowing if they’ll get bumped at the last minute for higher priorities, never mind the stress of the test itself for many. I think it is ridiculous and haven’t figured out yet why one of the many unions hasn’t hit them with a series of grievances. When they tried to bump me from May 10 to July 10th (yep, almost four months after my training ended), I said, “Sure, no problem. Just put a litigation hold on all files related to scheduling for the last 18 months.” For those of you not in government, that is code wording that says “I’m about to crawl up your butt with a grievance or lawsuit.” Surprisingly, my test date was moved to May 30th instead, along with a polite question, “Is that okay?”. And no, I wasn’t bluffing.
Bilingual capacity is a mandatory part of my job, I’m a priority for reclassification testing and a separate priority for talent management, plus in the midst at the time of job arrangements that required me to have my test done. Giving me the run around on scheduling violates the collective agreement as well as three separate internal rules for HR that I as a manager have to follow for my own staff, and yes, management has to follow for me too. This is happening to people across the government, and the stories are mind-numbingly bad. It almost makes Phoenix look like a well-run pay system. It also seems to be happening more to anglophones seeking french tests, and almost not at all to francophones seeking English tests, something that would have been my first step in a discovery motion to scare the complete crap out of them. I’m sure the reality is that they can meet the lower demand more easily, but the appearance of two different treatments is bad for employers winning grievances. But I digress.
My first attempt
I practiced before the test with my friend Andrew, just an evening out for dinner, as we had a few times previously with a couple of other guys as Andrew was preparing. I enjoyed those evenings, although I don’t know if it was helping me much. I just wasn’t relaxing into fluency enough.
Anyway, I did the test, and it was a good news / bad news situation.
The good news was the recorded part. I had no trouble with the recordings at all…they were professionally clear, surprisingly so for internal government services that often cut corners on IT tools. I was suitably impressed with the clarity. Bopped through it, and the dialogues were way easier than I had been practicing with at the school and on my own (for those of you not aware, there are 2 voicemails to listen to, 2 short dialogues between 2 people, and then later a longer dialogue between 2 people if you make it that far).
The bad news is that my stress was bad. I did not feel confident at all with ten weeks between my training and my test. I felt like I was going in cold. I couldn’t remember any good structures, I got messed up with my mots liens (linking words), and then I had a small near out of body experience.
There is one type of question I struggle with…inversions. So instead of asking “Est-ce que vous pensez…” (what do you think), the form is “Que pensez-vous…”. The problem for me is not every inversion, it’s that the inversion often separates out a beginning condition from a larger hypothesis, and thus the verb is in the conditional form (penseriez-vous). Just an extra roll of the R in the middle, and separated from the clause at the end, and together it is just enough to confuse me as to the intent of the question. And if they make it a harder verb like conseiller instead of penser (what would you advise instead of think), I often get lost in the subordinate clauses later in the question.
Which I did. I think the question was something like “what advice would I give someone managing a project like a corporate planning project”. Except I wasn’t fully certain that was the question. Plus I had a problem of a mental break. I had told her I was a planner, and that I did corporate planning (at the start of the test). Then for a presentation component, I described the steps of a project. So, as follow up, she was now asking me about a corporate planning project (merging the two). In my answer, I decided, for no apparent reason other than I would do so in a real conversation in English, that I would explain that there was a difference between corporate planning and planning a project. After going down that rabbit hole a few sentences, she even tried to throw me a rope to get back out, to which I basically said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get there, keep your shorts on” (not really, I just mean I acknowledged her attempt — and kept going another two sentences). It wasn’t necessarily fatal, but by the time I got to the end, I’d forgotten the question. I tried to go back to it but didn’t hit it solidly. If I had been totally clean for the rest, I could have saved it, but of course, I wasn’t.
Why did I go down that rabbit hole? The inverted question form. I wasn’t quite sure I understood it, and so I stalled with this other context. Not surprisingly, I only got my B.
Returning to training
The stakes got higher after that. I found a new job (#50by50 #04 – Start a new job) and like all management positions, it requires a CBC-level profile for reading-writing-oral. I have an exemption for reading and renewed my B for writing, so I just needed the C in oral. In the interim, they let me start on secondment of four months less a day. Basically up to just past Hallowe’en, at which time, I would turn into a slowly decomposing pumpkin. The ironic part is that the organization box isn’t actually CBC, it is only BBB, which I could already meet. But they are in the process of reclassifying it, and they can’t put me in it at BBB knowing I don’t meet the CBC yet.
So I need a C to keep the job permanently. In March, I was confident after my training. By May 30th, not so confident. And I got a B. I knew I could get the C again, just a question of when.
My new boss agreed to schedule another week of training, and we did it in conjunction with the test. We scheduled the test, it came back as August 25th, and the training was adjusted to start August 18th. The perfect model — practice until the day before and go in hot.
I had five days to prepare. I rightly expected that Day 1 and Day 2 would be warm-up for me. I avoided full simulations in those days, I just wanted to practice speaking to get my rhythm going. Day 2 in the afternoon was the day of the eclipse and we even went outside for a while. It was great.
Day 3 started off well, but my simulation wasn’t great. The afternoon came, and I don’t know if it was the air in the building (terrible circulation there) or something I had for lunch, but I didn’t feel at all well. We knocked off early and I came home and slept.
Day 4, a Wednesday, was PERFECT. I was flying in the morning. I joke, but only partially, that if my test was that morning, I could have had a shot at the exemption. I was bopping back and forth in time, I was nailing the indirect voice, I remembered some of my mots liens, it was heaven. Not as strong in the afternoon, but still good. Progress.
Day 5, Thursday, started off okay. I wasn’t hot but I wasn’t bad. Then the afternoon started. And I hit a brick wall. I was struggling with EVERYTHING. I listened to a recording, and I missed 60% of it. We shifted into a small presentation of some topics I’ve done 100 times in my life, and I couldn’t even conjugate present tense well. I completely locked up.
And then it happened. I started to say something conditional, and instead of “Je pourrais…”, I actually said, “Je could…”. JE COULD? What the f*** was that? I haven’t made an error like that in 19 years. Wow.
My teacher wanted to continue, but I knew better. If I fought through that, by the time I was done, my confidence would be zero. I quit right then and went home. Not the most promising omens before the test the next morning. I hoped a good night’s sleep like Tuesday would put me in the realm of Wednesday’s performance, but I was restless that night.
The big day
Friday dawned, and off I went. I parked at work, checked the time of the appointment on my computer (there was some doubt as to whether it was at 10:00 as I told Andrea or 11:00 as I was expecting, but it was indeed 11:00, whew), and walked over to the building. Relaxed in the basement seating area with my hematite stone in my hand. I don’t know why but it relaxes me, as it did for my first successful attempt at the C back in 2005. I went upstairs, registered, waited, and then, the examiner arrived. It was on!
We went in, got set up, and my nerves about the format of the test were gone since I’d been through it before. I knew what she was going to say before she said it. We tested the volume, everything good to go.
We started with Part 1, which is general questions about where I work, how I got there that morning, my typical day, etc. I confess that I’ve had a small niggling doubt about something, and I decided there was nothing to be lost by hedging my bets. When it came to my title, I said I was an analyst. Not a manager. Sure, I mentioned that I manage a small team from time to time, but nothing that would indicate that I was a full manager, acting director, or even head of an entire division. In government philosophy, the bar is pretty high for management to be fully fluent yet lower for non-management. Does that translate into the rigour of the test? There’s no evidence either way, nor could there be, but nothing to be lost by diminishing my job a bit. And it’s not a lie, I do a lot of analyst duties. I just happen to have a full manager title. In the end, the questions are your basic A and B levels, nothing challenging there, but I didn’t want it to turn into a deep philosophical discussion in Part 4. For this test, Part 1 was easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Part 2 starts with the first two recordings, i.e. voicemails, and I used a mix of indirect style to describe in simple terms what they were about, how they ended, etc. My goal for each piece was to respond directly to the question, and generally forget the rules, structures, everything I memorized. Just talk and have a conversation. Nothing challenging in the voicemails.
The next two recordings were the dialogues, and again, nothing challenging. I understood every single word. No missed nuances.
With Part 3, the presentation, we were into solid B territory, and all three of my options were describing past situations. One of them allowed me to talk about my decision to quit law school. I haven’t practiced that a lot in French, but I have in English, including on this blog, so I wouldn’t search for something to say, just how to say it. I wasn’t as good as Wednesday, but I was flying pretty well. I was natural, I was at ease, I described the steps in the decision, and ended. I was a bit weak on the finale, but the opening and middle were solid.
We moved into the follow-up questions, and I went on hyper-alert. Here it comes, the inversion format. “Que conseilleriez-vous…”.
An inverted hypothesis with an option to give advice and express an opinion? I’m on it!
I used the conditional form to start (imparfait of avoir l’occasion, followed by a conditional form of proposer) and we were off to the races. I followed up with the switch to present tense, and then, I just talked naturally. I relied on my flow, my (reduced) elaboration and my vocabulary to outshine my pronunciation and grammar structures. Two more follow up questions, a bit repetitive, and then it was time for the tough part.
Part 4, which is well into high B and C territory, started with a dialogue. And I just about lost focus. First of all, I was expecting a recorded intro…nope, she spoke, asked if I was ready, and then the dialogue started direct. Except it wasn’t a dialogue. It was a man speaking very slowly, formally, announcing a change. I thought at first it WAS an intro before I realized it was the so-called dialogue. But he spoke for almost 90 seconds to 2 minutes with nobody else talking. It was a formal speech for a meeting, and then he asked if there were any questions or feedback. So a woman started talking and disagreeing with the change. The normal process for Part 4 and that part was fine.
I listened to the second part again, and I was a bit nervous with one word if I understood everything correctly. They kept saying “unités”. Which I had never heard used before. I assumed it meant units, but didn’t know it had an accent at the end. I just went with it. I used it the way they had. I did the indirect style, wasn’t perfect this time, but the dialogue was quite long. I summarized it like I’m supposed to, not provide a transcript, and we were into the follow-up questions.
The first was the standard “what’s my opinion of that”, easy enough. And again, I threw away my concern with the perfect structure, responded naturally to the direct question, and kept my answer a bit shorter than I would in practice. I got another follow-up, another chance to provide advice or opinion, same deal. And a third which was a weak softball question.
And that was it. We chatted naturally as we exited about our kids being sick, we said goodbye, and the test was over.
After the test, my reaction was immediate. “That was TOO easy!” The easiest test I’ve ever had in my career. I understood everything, I was relaxed, no games, just talking, biding my time until the tough questions came and they never did. The woman doing the test was awesome. She helped me relax, her diction was perfect, the pace was good. She asked for a clarification of something I said in Part 4 and it was easy to respond to it and explain what I had meant. It was almost fun.
I panicked about the “unité” word, then started to second-guess my use until co-workers told me it did indeed mean unit. I realized too that I had blanked on another vocabulary word when I was talking about my law school days. I tried to say the people in the cases had been dead for 70 years, and “morte” was not coming to me. I knew there was a word like “deceased” (décédé) and I think I said something close to that (décés) but I know one wrong vocabulary isn’t terminal (no pun intended).
What was interesting to me though is that while I was calm during the test, surprisingly so, when I got back to the office, my energy left my body at an alarming rate of fast-talking. I talked to my boss, my team, my old coworkers, random people in the hallway, and over two hours, I had verbal diarrhea to tell them about my experience. But mostly I was asking a question.
“It was easy…what does that mean? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”
I posted the same on FB. Then the waiting began.
In the past, you could have your results sometimes the same day. Usually the second day at the latest. Unless you were on the line between A and B or B and C, in which case they wanted someone else to listen to the tape too to verify the result. And back then, it was an actual tape cassette. So it took time to physically set someone up to hear it. Now it’s all electronic. And it took five days for my result to come in. A full five days.
I don’t know why, although maybe I was on the line again. I don’t know. I just know that during the week, I went from a high of “Yay me” to a low of “oh, I must have failed”. Most people go through it, I know, but the post-action self-criticism is a brutal experience. I’ve been checking my BB religiously all week.
Any results? Any RESULTS? ANY RESULTS?????
Today, I took Jacob to Appletree, long wait. And just before we left, I checked once again. SLE Results. Gulp.
I opened the PDF on my BB (which is a really tiny screen), zoomed to the result, and watched as the fuzzy little letter resolved to a C.
So I closed it and did it again to be sure. 🙂
Yep, I renewed my level. I can now deploy and not for nothing, keep the job I’m in. The level of pending complications if I didn’t get it this time is averted, and I’ve been trying not to think about it. Now I don’t have to do so.
My overall reaction to the renewal experience
I had a very strange experience on Tuesday during my practice/training. My tutor asked me if I had seen a video on Youtube called, “Who’s afraid of the big bad C?” Not cancer, it’s the C on the learning exam, and it’s done by the same company that has prepared the tools that the learning school uses internally, MyLearningMyWay.com.
So we watched the video, which is open to anyone to watch.
The video provoked two completely different reactions in me, hence the weird experience.
On the one hand, I saw a whole bunch of things I disagreed with for the advice. Basically things like saying focusing on grammar or mots liens or structures were an indication you were still only a B. That those weren’t things to worry about. Except of course those are things people DO often need to worry about because they both aid in communication if used right and hinder communication if used wrong. If I had watched that video around the time of my first test in 2005, I would have disagreed with almost EVERYTHING. Even back in March, I would have dismissed it as philosophy over real preparation.
But now I had the other reaction too. The emphasis she argues is on communications of ideas, not the structures etc. And I had some evidence of this. My wife got her B a number of years ago, and has been clearly capable of higher levels with training and practice. She has a great ear for comprehension, something I am very jealous of her having. She had to renew this year too, and a B was guaranteed, no problem. Easy peasy. But she prepared a bit more for this one. She looked at some of my materials from my training, she looked at some of the online stuff, she practiced some of the areas and she learned what the structural elements were in the test. And she went in, responded directly to the questions, badda bing badda bang, she got a C! A full letter upgrade with no additional training. She just communicated with the tools she had already learned. Freaking awesome, she is.
And that’s what was on my mind going into the test. Making sure I played to my strengths (flow, elaboration but not too much, vocabulary) and not fussing as much about my weaknesses (linking words, comprehension). Not because I totally agreed with the video, but that I realized that I could communicate my ideas, and if the structure wasn’t perfect, worrying about it wouldn’t help. If I had something in my toolbox that I knew well enough to use, I would use it; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I was as ready as I could be with what I had in my toolbox.
I also had a small hidden weapon in my confidence. During the week of practice, one of my tutors and I had a conversation about HR processes, how the government works, and basically everything related to my HR guide for the upfront part of finding a job. I did it all from memory, an almost 2-hour conversation where we just discussed how it worked. In short, the exact same conversation that I have had with lots of people over the years in English. But I was doing it in detail in French. And she understood me just fine.
I am exaggerating slightly, but this was the most “real” demonstration of my ability in my career. A real conversation, 2 hours, unstructured, questions, answers, clarifications, explanations, examples. All of it. Exactly as I would do and have done in English. All in French. Was I perfect? Hell no.
But I communicated. And that’s what I tried to harness for the exam. And I did.
It’s almost like getting the C was just a bonus.
(Oh, who am I kidding? I GOT MY FREAKING C AGAIN. Booyah! If that isn’t worth an entry on my 50 by 50 list, nothing is! Besides telling my wife and my boss the results, I also sent a message to a friend at work who had a funny story of her nephew getting a hole-in-one in mini-golf and I used his mixed French/English phrase as my subject line — “J’ai got it!”).
I’m curious in part by what comes next. Sure, the obvious, I get to deploy from my old job and accept the new one completely. Plus I get my bilingual bonus back. All good.
Yet there is something else in my need for the renewal that has been blocking me on other things. I want to do some new astronomy stuff. I want to learn to fly a drone. I have some learning courses I’m interested in. Maybe some photography work. But ALL of them were ones that I felt needed to wait until my french was renewed. Not that I was spending 24/7 doing french, but just that I couldn’t afford to divert any of my mental energy into a large new project until that one was done. Now that it’s done, I’m curious to see where my desire to grow takes me. On with the journey!